My purpose in these posts is to bring a variety of Christian and other writers in a desire to share significant writings that in my estimation contribute to the common good and directly or indirectly give glory to God and extend the Lord's work of salvation to all of humanity. G.S.
This is part 2 in a reflection on human sexuality following on part 1 which was posted May 20, 2016. In that more recent post I reflected further and reformulated an original post examining clergy sexual abuse and finding it to be only the tip of the iceberg in human society. Fr. Gilles Surprenant
Here were some titles in the original post of January 14, 2014 - Sexual abuse 1 - by clergy the tip of the iceberg
This original post from January 14, 2014 on sexual abuse I re-framed as a series of reflections with a focus on our unique developmental process as human beings with particular interest in the role of the process of eroticization in our development and growth as persons. Two additional titles were added to the original 11 to reformulate a reflection on sexual abuse in terms of human development.
We find a broad spectrum on the human landscape
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Human development and the role of eroticization
It would be interesting to dialogue with readers who have questions or comments on what has preceded as well as what is to follow or, for that matter, on all that is to be found in this blog.
Human beings develop into persons over a long period of time
It is admittedly impossible to thoroughly understand our human nature, including our sexuality, and even less in its distorted forms, unless we acquire a more fundamental and evidence-based grasp of what we are as human beings and how we become the beings we are whether at our best or at our worst. What are the many factors that enhance our free will to live lives of purpose and integrity on the one hand or on the other hand debilitate that ability and cause us to become mere shadows of what and who we might be, shameful or even dangerous counterfeit human beings?
In beginning this series of reflections on human sexuality and development we at first looked at the horror of sexual abuse as the distortion that it obviously is and then in contrast to it we opened this exploration to the broader vista of human development. Our premise is that we are not born fully developed but develop into the people we become over many years.
There seems to be broad consensus in the human sciences and in society at large that the early years in the womb and infancy are crucial for our development as persons and that our developmental process "closes the loop" as it were by the time we enter into early adulthood. As we consider human sexuality as it is experienced in the current landscape of human society we observe much confusion and pain around sexuality and sexual activity and expression. Even the casual observer can suspect the real existence of a very complex and protracted human developmental process which takes at least 25 years to run its full course.
Professional anthropologists study artifacts left behind by people who lived in the past or those of people currently alive in various places on the Earth. Those now living can also be observed in the various moments, activities, social structures and practices and anthropologists formulate theories about those they observe, about how aware they are of themselves, how they see themselves, the meaning and purpose they give to their lives, and how they understand their place in the world.
In looking at our own lives and generations, at our own societies, we observe our human capacity for complex personal development, activity, and self-awareness, our profound capacity for reflection and understanding, and our unique capacity to be aware of our faults and to be willing to correct them. On the dark side we are also capable of ignoring self-awareness, of denying our own faults, and instead of imposing on or attempting to dominate others. The contrast between the saint and the sociopath or psychopath illustrates this wide spectrum of possible human characters and personalities.
At one end of the spectrum of human life we find that the place given to human sexuality is merely as one of many refined dimensions of life. In the loving, faithful, fruitful, and committed relationship of a wife and her husband in marriage as a partnership of equals and a community of life and love, their human sexuality manifests a broad range of expression characterized by tenderness in a variety of relational contexts: towards each other, with children, their own parents and siblings, and others. For such a couple genital sexuality is always about their fertility and power to give life while it is also always about expressing and strengthening their union as persons joined in a unique couple.
Rather than seeking or grasping for pleasure, the husband seeks to pleasure his wife, to whom he attaches himself out of appreciation and gratitude for the multiple ways in which she pours herself out for him and their children as one who gives and nourishes life. His selfless efforts in the bridal chamber are consistent with his efforts each day and all week to attend to his wife and children. He notices each person and attends to them in accord with the nature and needs of each one and in this he greatly values the observations and judgement of his wife and mother of their children.
The tenderness with which she cleaves to her husband expresses her appreciation for his presence, his efforts on her behalf and that of their family, and his consideration and attentiveness to her needs as she forgets herself in pouring out her life energy for those she loves. She values his role in their joint parenting of their children, and she senses the importance of his role as each child develops a sense of identity, of their gender, and that they are loved.
The friendship and manifestly loving relationship of the couple is the solid foundation of their family, in which children are mentored by both a father and a mother and are supported in their individual and collective developmental processes as infants, children, adolescents, youth, and young adults living in the communal context of their own family of origin.
While explicit genital sex does not feature overly prominently in such a universe of marriage and family life; it nevertheless is ever in the background and enjoys a valuable but discrete place as the wholesome expression of the tenderness and affection bonding their parents to each other and open to them as their children. In such a family, human sexuality is appropriately protected and safeguarded by an air of privacy, mystery, responsibility, and mutual respect.
These parents are open yet guarded on sexual issues, taking care to properly form and inform their children at appropriate teaching moments, yet taking care to protect - especially in their early more vulnerable years - their children's innocence of mind, heart, and imagination. From their point of view, our modern social climate and culture is a battleground littered with casualties, with children and youth who have been violated and robbed of innocence. All the more reason do such parents see the importance of their role in doing all they can to construct a lively and loving family environment which is at the same time communally rich and personally responsible.
If parents find themselves with an obligation to protect the innocence of their children, it is because at the opposite end of the human spectrum we find the casualties of what we could call the "sex wars": those who have suffered, often from infancy, verbal, psychological, and even sexual abuse, or who suffered deficits of loving care, of compassion, of the essentials of human respect and kindness.
Even those who have benefited from proper human care as they grew up may have suffered the lack of proper formation and mentoring that could have helped them to begin to accept and understand themselves, their sexuality in all of its dimensions, and the natural place it has in the whole realm of human relationships in all their variety and complexity. This could happen in environments where the parent or parents suffer a lack of sufficient self-awareness, autonomy, knowledge, or responsibility, and hence engage in sexual activity as a form of currency for surviving or obtaining other goods, attention, influence, of even a position of dominance. Such deficits leave human persons isolated, or poor or raw and needy, and put them at risk to employ their sexuality to grasp as a drowning person might grab a lifesaver; rather than as a way to tenderly give of themselves to the other.
A crucial question which acts as a "tipping point" in the human development of boys and girls into young men and women touches precisely on the place of sexuality in their consciousness. What has their experience of childhood and adolescence allowed them to understand is of greatest importance for them as human beings? Are they discovering as paramount their meaning, purpose, and dignity in life and have they begun to enjoy the freedom of will to go on giving meaning and purpose to their life by fully assuming their inherent human dignity?
In this context are they able to see, understand, accept, and responsibly assume their human sexuality as one dimension among many composing their nature as human beings? They begin to understand that human sexuality is a capacity to give of oneself to the other rather than an impulse to grab and use the other for oneself. This understanding enhances their free will to responsibly assume both their rights and duties in life and in society in view of making their personal contribution to the common good with satisfaction; while engaging in the course of living out their lives as fully as possible.
Here is the reverse side of this "tipping point". On the other hand, when people are not sufficiently formed and mentored by their parents to see, understand, accept, and appreciate their life as a good yet complex reality requiring ongoing learning and personal responsibility; they are at greater risk at a young age or later to be troubled by their human sexuality - from hormones to attractions - and by all that is to be observed in an impulsive society and culture and to be endured at the hands of others.
Even with optimum conditions in which to grow up from infancy to young adulthood, life presents us with any number of challenges to our understanding of life, the world, and society in general and to our self-understanding in particular. Whatever confusion or uncertainty assails us becomes a "hot point" or "sticking point" in our psyche and may remain with us as a problem to be solved or as a vacuum to be filled or again as a challenge to be taken up. Whatever the dynamic is in a young man's or woman's life may determine to a great extent one of the principle directions or orientations of their whole life. Our instinct of self-preservation or of survival tends to push us to resolve those issues that remain as an irritant in our psyche, in our mind or heart or spirit, or even in our physical body.
A preoccupation with illness or injury can drive a person into the medical field. Sensitivity to mental or emotional pain or confusion can drive a person into the related fields of psychiatry or psychology. An experience of emptiness or a single or series of spiritual experiences can drive a person towards related fields of religion, philanthropy, a religious vocation, pastoral ministry, or priesthood. A sense of loneliness can drive a person into some form of communal life or partnership or marriage. A good experience of family life can draw one to find a competent spouse with the complementary gifts of a mother to bear the children one would father or a father for the children one would bear as mother.
It is not difficult to find in any culture or time or place some men and women either demonstrably militant or more discretely unhappy with their traditionally assigned sexual identities or roles. We could perhaps say that our own western society and culture may perhaps be giving more prominence to gender identity issues than any preceding generations.
Gender confusion or uncertainty - affirmed more factually according to recent research - has been considered a normal but transitory and temporary phase for some children, adolescents, and even for some adults. To be more specific, it has been widely observed that children may spontaneously play "doctor" and explore one another's bodies. Adolescents may suddenly experience arousal at the sight of a same gender friend's physical features or nakedness. While a young person's sense of identity remains incomplete and fluid it can and does happen that they experience such physical arousal and corresponding emotions of attraction and affection. However, for the most part, it has been found that such experiences turn out to be temporary and fade or simply stop as youth continue to develop.
It is not difficult to understand how fluid an adolescent's self understanding may be and how volatile the changes can be in how they are aware of themselves, what that may mean to them, what place that has in their life history to this point, and what other factors may affect and change or affirm how they see, experience, and understand their own self and their life. In negotiating a labyrinth one may find many dead ends and backtrack to seek out a path that goes forward. So too in human development any number of human experiences turn out to be dead ends, accidents along the way, temporary stops but not final destinations.
It is scandalous that certain ideological stances taken by individuals and interest groups are lobbied to governments to impose on children in schools sex ed programs that are in fact propaganda designed to exploit children and youth in order to advance their social engineering agenda. Such self-interested voices seek to replace fact based and traditional understanding of human sexuality with libertarian ideologies promoting sexual exploration and experimentation without any consideration of moral, responsible, or religious principles that have been proved to be beneficial for the individual, for the family, and for society at large. These interests would want to "freeze" children and young people into "labelled" categories of sexual preference or gender rather than respect them and allow them to find their way. Most people throughout history have found their way to some degree of identification with their own gender, either to enter into marriage and family or some form of celibate living.
The "Institut de Formation Humaine Intégrale de Montréal" in its formation programs adopted and has refined classic psychological theory and practice explaining the stages of development of the human person in terms of levels of identity, of which are six.
- The body identity - from birth to one year of age
- The identity of the doer - from one year to two and a half years
- The individual identity - from two and a half to three years of age
- The psychosexual identity - from three to six years of age
- The psychosocial identity - from six to twelve years of age
- The identity of the self - the integration of the human identity at all five previous levels into a single autonomous identity from twelve to eighteen years of age
The latest trend emerging from France is a whole theoretical or hypothetical philosophical discourse around human gender. The intention seems to be to call into question all that has been understood until now in human history around our gender identity as male or female. We have always known that there is a wide range of expression of "maleness" and "femaleness" among human beings and from one culture and ethnic population to another, from one century or millennium to another. These new ideologues would want to define such variations as entirely new "sexes" or "genders". There would even be some individuals who would want to claim to have "no gender" at all.
Human society seems to be unreasonably tolerant in entertaining such wild imaginings to the point of absurdity by allowing subjective feelings and imaginings to be taken as more real, substantive, and permanent than objectively known, observable, measurable, and definable facts. Only a fool would declare of no value the subjective human experience of life, but it is equally foolish to let subjective experience trump or nullify the cumulative value of our collective experience and knowledge.
What began some fifty years ago as an offshoot of the civil rights movement seeking to obtain for those who self identify as homosexual the kind of freedom and public recognition increasingly gained by racial or linguistic or ethnic minorities has become an audacious and ostensibly misguided quest to redefine human nature itself and the human person with sexuality as the keystone, the primary factor defining the whole. I don't think there can be any clarity in understanding what it means to be human without beginning with some understanding of the developmental process itself. Eroticization is one of the mechanisms involved in this developmental process and examining this mechanism will turn out to be very enlightening indeed.
We will find the process of eroticization at least a clue to why the current situation is what it is, how it has happened in our day that the trend to define oneself primarily in terms of one's sexuality has come to pass, and why our society and culture has become so obsessed with sex and sexuality.
For our purposes here, let us adopt the definition employed at the I.F.H.I.M. mentioned above in the course of teaching and giving practical formation in the mechanisms of the human developmental process. In this context, eroticization is the mechanism whereby a human being from one moment to the next, from conception on but especially from birth, takes "imprints" from the outside world and connects these with its own interior sensations and processes. In Introductory Psychology there is the much quoted experiment of "Pavlov's Dogs" in which the dogs at first don't salivate upon seeing and smelling unknown foods but who later on do salivate upon seeing or smelling them after having eaten and tasted them. The initial experience of seeing, smelling, and then tasting the unknown food leaves a new "imprint" in the animal's conscious and neurological processes.
Eroticization has taken place, that is, the pleasure principle has been activated and experienced and has left traces or pathways which from then on will tend to seek repetition. Eroticization connects the animal with the object of its pleasure, and in time, other circumstances may join in the association, such as the time of day, or the light in the room, or the color of the plate, or a particular sound, and so on. Almost anything can be caught up into an association with a particular pleasure, and the association may be intensified with use or eventually disassociated altogether through disuse.
In our day most people have seen graphic animations or other representations of how the human brain works with lightning like sparks running between the synapses and establishing connections and paths. Those physical and chemical processes correspond to the "associations" we make between the sight of a food, its fragrance, its taste, the pleasure we take from those sensations, the satisfaction that comes from taking in nourishment and drink, and the awareness we accumulate of all these factors. All of this experience further develops into desire, anticipation, and future planning for acquiring, preparing, and consuming food and drink.
The first experiences of various pleasures and the process of building on those pleasures with the development of memories and imagination grows into a cumulative experience we could call a process of eroticization. We all have a rich and increasingly long and deep experience of pleasures and these make innumerable "associations" with material objects, places, other people, sights, sounds, tastes, fragrances, and countless other factors.
A friend years ago explained to me how he had developed such a strong association between coffee and cigarettes that he could hardly have one without also taking the other. There is abundant literature about strange "sexual tastes or preferences or associations" such as with pain or particular garments and so on. Such associations may initially come about by accident or coincidence, but they may also come about by conscious intent and choice.
Human beings and societies have always understood that we are not machines with no choice but to operate as built, but living organisms with free will and the ability to "shape" our behaviors, tastes, preferences, and choices. Different ethnic populations and cultures manifest different preferences to be assigned to gender as male or female. These have been, until now, widely accepted as beneficial in helping young people to find their way to clarity of identity within themselves but also socially.
The pleasure principle certainly contributes largely to the development, health, and prosperity of the human person, but through interaction with family and wider social groups, individuals also learn to curb their desires to satisfy the pleasure appetites in favor of the good of other people in particular and of the common good in general. Morality and religion have a lot of accumulated knowledge and wisdom that assure sufficient harmony between individual personal growth and happiness and the common good of others in a great variety of groupings.
Inclinations and appetites for sexual pleasure - both the diffuse pleasure of simply being male or female with all their inherent processes and sensations and meanings and the specific experience of sexual pleasure and union - are very powerful and for this reason open up great potential for coming together on such paths as marriage and family, clan or tribe, and nation as well as for division and distress, trouble and hurt, fighting, war, and death. The potential and actual consequences of sexual union are so extreme that most if not all societies develop rules of conduct and taboos to restrain excesses for the sake of peace and cooperation.
Eroticization enhancing or disturbing the congruence of one's gender identity
Even with excellent upbringing and mentoring, young people still go through unique experiences and face unique challenges, and they must all make their own decisions and find their own way. They can choose to ignore the collective wisdom of their elders and culture but they must then accept to endure or enjoy the consequences of their choices. Those whose upbringing has faults or deficiencies may very well experience greater challenges or pain as they learn through their own mistakes.
There is wisdom in adhering to the lessons and example of mentors we admire, but it is foolish to take the risk of following ideological speculation and theorizing about artificial constructs around speculative re-definitions of human gender and sexuality. What is even more damaging than theory and thought is trying to put such speculation into practice. With how the eroticization process works there is great risk in "experimenting" with sexual practices because each erotic experience builds on others before it. It is equally possible for a person to build up wholesome sexual development or unhealthy sexual experimentation.
Catholic Christian experience and wisdom teaches that sexual union is so powerful that it is evidently designed to unify one woman and one man for life, exclusively, faithfully, generously, and lovingly. Casual sex or sexual experimentation or union without a life commitment eventually lead to breaking up and this is so painful that there is great risk that one may not recover. Even when one does recover what is lost is the original innocence and the human person's "built in" optimism and joyful outlook.
Employing one's sexual faculty outside the parameters of a chaste, exclusive, faithful, life long union of one man and one woman builds erotic associations, habits, preferences that make it increasingly difficult to enter into the eminently human and paradigmatic union of marriage and family.
The more we fire those synapses, the more "beaten" the "path" in the brain, the stronger the impulse or habit becomes to repeat particular practices. Any and every use of our sexual faculty outside of marriage and family has been shown time and again to lead to excesses that lean rather to pain than to happiness, to division rather than to union, to the disintegration of family rather than its progress.
When sexual habits outside the "norm" of marriage and family proven to be the most beneficial for society become increasingly "fixed", a human being becomes hardened, distorted, or petrified. The life of marriage and family provides the ideal environment for human beings to develop more fully their sensibilities to the good and well being of others. In other words, it is in these environments that they are more likely to develop more fully as human persons. Engaging in our human appetites without restraint is dangerous for ourselves but also for others. It is true in many ways and at many levels that "it takes a village to raise a child".
© 2004-2021 All rights reserved Fr. Gilles Surprenant, Associate Priest of Madonna House Apostolate & Poustinik, Montreal QC
© 2004-2021 Tous droits réservés Abbé Gilles Surprenant, Prêtre Associé de Madonna House Apostolate & Poustinik, Montréal QC
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